Octavia Spencer reunites with the director of The Help, and this time she’s serving worse things than a “chocolate pie”.
The high school experience dominates the American psyche. The victories and humiliations of our late adolescence will help shape our adult selves in ways we often don’t realize. For most, what we did in high schools is a nascent force, informing many of our views, but ultimately is something we leave in the past. For others, especially those for whom high school was a traumatic experience, what happened in their teenage years will be key in defining who they become. Tate Taylor’s new thriller Ma is a chilling example of how the traumas of the past can lead to suffering in the future.
High schooler Maggie (Diana Silvers) moves with from San Diego with her mother, Erica (Juliette Lewis, Natural Born Killers) to Erica’s home town in Ohio. Erica quickly makes a group of friends, and when they try to find an adult to purchase alcohol for them, they meet veterinary assistant, Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures), who reluctantly agrees to buy them booze.
After the group uses Sue Ann to buy alcohol a few times, she offers to let them party at her place, reasoning that it’s safer than partying outside. The place soon becomes a hot spot for local teens, and Sue Ann — who they affectionately call “Ma” — becomes something of an underground hero for underage revelers. However, something seems off about Ma: she’s a little too into the teenage boys, she spams out texts, and she doesn’t take rejection very well. Soon, Maggie doesn’t want to spend much time with Ma anymore, but getting rid of Ma won’t be easy.
Ma starts out feeling like a lighthearted coming of age flick: the opening scene is even a montage of smalltown life set against a folk-pop song. From there, the film ramps up the tension until it turns into a proper thriller. It would be inaccurate to call Ma a slow burn, as the pacing is near perfect and at 99 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome. But the film admirably doesn’t try to bombard you with suspense right off the bat. Outside of a few unsettling hints of Sue Ann’s mental imbalance, the film is mostly comedic for the first half hour of the film, but once the scary side of “Ma” comes out, it builds with a steady escalation that will keep the audience thrilled throughout the second and third act.
A big part of the escalation of tension comes from Spencer’s stellar performance. An actor going against type is always risky business, but a smart performer will know how to use the expectations of the audience to their advantages. Luckily for Ma, Spencer is a very smart woman. When we’re introduced to Sue Ann, she feels a lot like Octavia’s more famous roles: sassy, no-nonsense, and funny as hell.
But soon the audience is shown a more disturbing side: hugs that last way too long, inappropriate comments, and a temper that turns truly terrifying. Still, even at her creepiest, Spencer gives Ma a pathos that makes her sympathetic. Many scenes have Sue Ann looking off into the distance, remembering past trauma, and these humanizing moments make the audience want to root for her, even when she does some awful things.
Spencer’s backed up by a game supporting cast, most notably Lewis as a woman who left her hometown in search of big dreams, only to return home to work a menial job. Lewis plays the part with a mix of embarrassment and dignity, and loads of love and concern for her daughter. Allison Janney (Drop Dead Gorgeous) has a bit part playing Sue Ann’s boss, and her exasperation at Sue Ann’s odd behavior are some of Ma‘s more gut-busting highlights.
The only downside to the awesome cast of adults (which also includes Luke Evans and Missi Pyle) is that the teens who are the ostensible leads are often outshined. It’s not that they’re bad, they’re just kids at the start of their careers acting against some amazing character actors.
The bland teenage friend group is also a problem with the themes of the film. Sue Ann has an unfortunate history with some of the kids’ parents that serves as the catalyst for the plot. The theme of ostracization and bullying is a pretty solid one for this type of thriller, but the modern-day teens don’t reflect it.
While there are some jerk teenagers in the film — a group of teens uses Sue Ann to buy booze, but stiff her, which causes a breakdown that is surprisingly heartbreaking — the main group is pretty nice, and only rebuff Sue Ann when she starts acting creepy. The only exception is Maggie’s friend, Haley (McKaley Miller, The Standoff), who has a bit of an attitude, but really only when provoked.
Even the flashbacks to Sue Ann’s past seem underdeveloped. Sue Ann’s memories are weaved throughout the plot and are revealed in flashes. This keeps Sue Ann’s backstory mysterious, but it also obscures her motivations: most notable with Erica. It’s shown that Erica stood by while others bullied Sue Ann, but it’s never really expanded on, making a confrontation the two have later in the film feel a bit hollow. While we get enough of Sue Ann’s backstory to make her anger understandable and to keep her at least somewhat sympathetic, the film would have benefited if they devoted a little more time on Sue Ann’s history.
For most of the film, the thrills are strictly psychological, but once the third act starts, the sets start to get bloodstained. Most horror fans won’t consider the gore excessive, but there is some disturbing violent imagery (as well as a brief flash of frontal male nudity, which some people may find more offensive). If you are particularly squeamish, it may be a bit much.
One of the challenges this movie sets for critics and advertisers is the need to make the audience aware of what genre the film actually is. But part of the fun of Ma is the film’s slow, unexpected turn into a deadly, high-stakes thriller. It would be great to see the movie without knowing beforehand that Ma is a danger to the teens, but if telling audiences that Octavia Spencer is going to crazy in this film will get them to see it, then it’s a secret I’m happy to divulge. Whatever gets butts in seats.